Like many comedians, Josh Widdicombe and Rob Beckett found themselves without an outlet when the pandemic struck. And so, like many comedians, they decided to make a podcast. Theirs – Lockdown Parenting Hell – has become one of the most popular in the country, mining the stresses of everything from twins, tantrums and building a trampoline to the tune of more than 15m downloads.
Beckett has two young children with his wife, Louise Watts, while Widdicome and his wife, Rose Hanson, have one, with another on the way. Each week, the pair interview a celebrity (past guests have included Michael Sheen, Philippa Perry and Paddy McGuinness) while sharing stories about their upended domestic lives. It is fast, fun and, at times, genuinely touching. Here, they share their thoughts on their pandemic pastime.
Stuart Heritage: Shouldn’t you be looking after your kids instead of doing a podcast?
Rob Beckett: I think the podcast gives us a good excuse to not look after them. That was the main reason we did it, really, wasn’t it? So that we can have a justifiable break from parenting.
Josh Widdicombe: It’s a way for us to go upstairs without feeling guilty about it. That was the whole elevator pitch for the podcast.
RB: The podcast started because we’d been texting each other, moaning about how hard lockdown was. It’s a WhatsApp group that’s got out of hand, essentially. It’s also self-therapy for us. I was having a wobble and I think Josh quite enjoyed the fact that I had it worse, with one more kid than him.
JW: Totally. It was the main thing getting me through. And I thought that other people would get some joy out of his pain.
RB: But now Josh is expecting a second child, so the tables will turn.
SH: Has Rob prepared you for the arrival of your second, Josh?
JW: I’m genuinely excited about it. Particularly because I think I’ll be a lot more confident with the child. All that stuff about: ‘How do you hold them?’ ‘How do you swaddle?’ I’m all right with that now, so I can actually enjoy having the child. But, conversely, I’m heartbroken about how it’ll coincide with the pubs reopening and the European championship [Euro 2020]. It’s brutal.
RB: I’ll be constantly in the pub. The grandparents are desperate to see the kids and they’re so easy to look after now, so I can just leave them with them. It’s a completely guilt-free opportunity.
SH: What have you learned about parenting in the past year?
JW: I think I’ve learned to chill out about it; that’s the main thing. Learning that the “big moments” – Christmas morning, the building of the snowman – are almost always not the big moment. But that’s OK. Sometimes, it’s enough to have a terrible time building a snowman.
RB: You think: “Oh, when we go on this holiday, that will be the magical family moment,” but instead you’re blindsided by something that happens at one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. I was away so much more before lockdown. I was working day and night. Classic poverty mindset: get all the money in before it goes away, work work work. My family life was dominated by grand gestures and big things. I’d be like: “I’ve got three days off, so let’s book somewhere.” But I think I’ve realised that the kids enjoy it just as much if you’re hanging around with them and placing more emphasis on being there, rather than working hard to save money for a big Disney thing. They don’t care, and just being with them is way more enjoyable for everyone. I’m going to try to work less and have fewer things.
JW: That’s good, because it means there’ll be more corporate gigs for other comics.
SH: Has lockdown changed your relationships with your partners?
JW: I think it’s made it much better, in that there’s less pressure on our time together. I used to be working five nights a week, so it felt like a waste if, on that sixth night, we just watched The Repair Shop and looked at our phones. But you need that time together, that total write-off time. It’s much more difficult to continue a relationship positively if, whenever you see each other, it’s like: “This is date night.” Maybe I didn’t realise that until lockdown.
RB: I didn’t realise, and I don’t think Lou [Beckett’s wife since 2015] even realised, how much she was doing on her own. Before lockdown, I was working all day on TV shows and doing tour shows in the evening and I’d been to LA, South Africa and Paris before January. I was never home and Lou had to do everything, which wasn’t good for her or me. In my head, I’m providing for my kids, but I’m not providing as a husband or a dad. It can’t just be a monetary support thing.
SH: You’ve said that the podcast has a predominantly female listenership – why do you think that is?
RB: I feel like a lot of the female audience enjoy listening to men chat about parenting, because not a lot of men do. It’s that whole thing of getting men to speak more, about mental health and stuff like that. Sometimes, the female audience quite likes trying to know what a bloke’s thinking about. It’s like spying behind enemy lines.
JW: In terms of mental health and speaking about stuff, this has unknowingly really helped me deal with the last year. It is so useful to talk about these things. It’s provided an outlet and, I think, for listeners it’s the same.
RB: And the listeners aren’t even all mums. We’ve got so many people that don’t have kids, but everyone is either a parent or had parents. I do think people listen to try to piece together how their parents parented them, or how they would parent. A lot of grandparents listen, too, to remind them of what it was like when they had younger kids. It shocked us that the audience wasn’t just parents of young kids.
SH: Have you struggled with any aspects of lockdown?
JW: I think I initially struggled with the idea that it was an opportunity. On the podcast, [the comedian] Ellie Taylor told us that her friend said “lockdown isn’t a writer’s retreat”. I spent 10 years going: “I would do that, but I’ve got a gig,” and then thought lockdown could have been my chance to write the great American novel. There was all that early pressure for lockdown to be a moment for everyone to find themselves, but actually it’s just about getting through it.
RB: I’ve found lockdown three tough. We’ve been locked down since November, then Lou had to shield for two or three months and that was really hard. It was cold and miserable and the kids got mad. I’m bored of Netflix, I want to do a gig, I don’t want my kids in my house. I want to get out and live my life.
SH: Do you think dads have more trouble making new friends than mums?
JW: I have struggled. We didn’t make friends through NCT [a charity that provides support for expectant parents], because we did an extreme two-day course. The friends I’ve got at the nursery gates are all mums, actually. I haven’t made any new dad friends, beyond acquaintances.
RB: It’s a lucky dip. I think women are nicer and more empathic, so they will suffer a dickhead for longer, whereas I’d just sack him off and do something on my own. I don’t know if that’s me, or all men. What I’ve learned is to just let Lou make friends and I’ll pick the one with the bloke I get on best with, and that’s our new double date.
JW: So she does a shortlist and then you pick a winner?
SH: Do you listen to other parenting podcasts?
JW: I’ve listened to Chris and Rosie Ramsey’s podcast [Sh**ged Married Annoyed] occasionally.
RB: I mainly listen to boxing and football ones.
JW: I listen to podcasts about unsolved murders and paranormal activity. I’ve just listened to two documentary series about Robert Maxwell. In many ways, they act as interesting parenting podcasts.
SH: Does your approach to parenting differ from how your dads parented you?
JW: My dad was basically an old hippy. He grew up in the 60s, so I had a very laid-back childhood. There was no pressure to do well at school or do a certain job – I’d hope that would be the thing I take from that. But then I’m a more uptight person than my dad, so that probably comes through.
RB: I’m more hands-on than my dad was. He was a long-distance lorry driver and a cab driver, so he worked mad hours and we wouldn’t see him much. I don’t remember him picking me up from school that much, because that’s when he worked. But that was more due to money than, you know, him just really loving driving. He loves us to pieces, but he had to earn the money, so he wasn’t there. I have that same mentality, which nearly led me to burnout before Covid. But now I’ve realised that it’s more productive to work less and be there more. It’s a learning curve. You only act in the way you’ve seen, so it’s hard.
SH: How were your homes growing up?
JW: I didn’t really get told off when I was a kid, but that’s a combination of my dad being laid-back and me being a dweeb. It was kind of a perfect storm, in that sense. There was also a lot of taking the piss; that was a big deal in our house. I would want my children to grow up in a house that was a laugh; I would hate for it to be a sterile atmosphere.
RB: Our house was brutal, to the point where it was too much. My brother had acne on his back, so his nickname was Dartboard Back. My brother Joe had smelly breath for about half an hour and got called Dogshit Breath for ever. I was called Jaffa Cake Nips because I had fat nipples through puberty. My mum used to call it The House of No Compassion. It shocked me when I went on Mock the Week and everyone said: “They’re all really intimidating.” What? My house is much worse than this.
SH: Where does Lockdown Parenting Hell go when lockdown ends?
RB: I’ll shake off Josh and take all the earnings.
JW: But he says I can come on as an interview guest.
RB: We genuinely started it because we thought it would be fun to do, but last week it was the top podcast in the country. I feel like now we’ve built a little community, so I would love to carry it on. It’s a journey that we need to carry on as our kids grow up.
JW: I remember at one point panicking, wondering if my daughter would hate me for it, but then I realised that the whole thing is really positive. I love the idea of a document that she can go back and discover when she’s older, combined with interviews with people that she won’t have heard of.
RB: I feel like it’s made me a better parent, because we’re talking to Philippa Perry and all these people who have older children.
JW: I think it’s made me a way better comedian, too, because I’ve never given much of myself to comedy in terms of revealing my personal life. But the success of this has taught me that the more honest you are, the funnier you are. On Sunday, I was in my car, stuck at this red light for five minutes, and people were honking at me to jump the light. And, yeah, I was stressed, but I was also thinking: “This is going to be great for the podcast.”
Josh Widdicombe hosts Hypothetical at 10pm on Wednesdays on Dave